The current occupant of the White House is a basketball guy. Other recent Leaders of the Free World have been partial to golf, jogging and brush clearing. Not Richard Nixon. Nixon loved football — pro football, college football, any kind of football.
Perhaps the love stemmed from his own limitations; he wasn’t, after all, much of a player in high school or college. Or maybe football was the sport that, to him, most closely resembled the gritty, few-holds-barred dogpile of politics. Whatever the case, Nixon was a huge fan and always was popping up at games and hobnobbing with coaches.
We were reminded of this over the weekend when yet another Nixon football story filtered out, almost 40 years after the fact. According to a tape in the National Archives, the Associated Press reported, our 37th president tried in 1972 to get the NFL to change its blackout policy, which at the time kept home games off the local airwaves. What spurred him to action was that the Washington Redskins were headed to their first Super Bowl, and their legions of followers were frustrated that they couldn’t see the team play (tickets to 55,000-seat RFK Stadium being nearly impossible to come by).
So the president — through his attorney general, Richard Kleindienst — proposed a deal to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. If the league lifted its blackout for home playoff games only, he would veto any legislation that might prevent the blacking out of regular-season games (legislation that, given the mood of the country, figured to be passed sooner rather than later).
“If we can get the playoff games,” Nixon told Kleindienst, “believe me, it would be the greatest achievement we’ve ever done.”
He uttered these words, I’ll just point out, 10 months after he made his historic visit to China.
Nixon liked football, all right. Most of you probably have heard about him suggesting plays to Redskins coach George Allen and Miami’s Don Shula. One of them, legend has it, was a disastrous end-around that resulted in a 13-yard loss in a playoff defeat at San Francisco. (Neither Allen nor Nixon ever denied it was the president’s call.)
Nixon’s unabashed fandom knew few bounds. When, during his vice presidency, the Green Bay Packers dedicated Lambeau Field — at halftime of a 1957 game against the Chicago Bears — RMN was there (along with the reigning Miss America). In his comments to the crowd, he invoked the names of Packers greats Don Hutson, Clarke Hinkle and Arnie Herber, and called Green Bay “the best known little city in the United States today.”
Thirteen years later, as president, he returned to Green Bay for a dinner honoring Bart Starr, the Packers’ Hall of Fame quarterback. And in between, he played golf with Otto Graham and offered advice that may have convinced the iconic QB to become the Redskins‘ coach in 1966.
After retiring from the Cleveland Browns, you see, Graham had taken over the program at the Coast Guard Academy and was quite enjoying himself. “I’ve got a great job here with no pressure and no [bothersome] alumni,” he told Nixon.
Not long afterward, Graham came to Washington to try to resuscitate the long-dormant franchise. He didn’t succeed, but his Redskins did score a regular-season-record 72 points one afternoon against the New York Giants. Ultimately, it was Allen, the football coach Nixon knew best, who revived the club’s fortunes. Their relationship, in fact, dated to the early ‘50s, when George coached at Whittier College, Nixon’s alma mater.
In 1971, Allen’s first year in Washington, the Redskins hit a rough patch after a 5-0 start and were in danger of missing the playoffs. So the president showed up at practice one day and gave them a pep talk. He told the players a tale about General Pershing in World War I. He reminded them how much their success meant to the city. He even predicted: “I believe you are going to get in [the playoffs] because I think out of these next four games you are going to win three … and that will do it.” Sure enough, the Redskins did — and reached the postseason for the first time in 26 years.
Alas, Nixon didn’t prove nearly as persuasive with the NFL the next season. Rozelle respectfully declined his offer, and playoff games — in Washington and elsewhere — remained blacked out. The following year, Congress approved a law that put in place the policy we have now. (That is, if any game is sold out 72 hours in advance, it must be televised locally.)
So Richard Nixon had to settle for China and the ending of the Vietnam War as the twin peaks of his presidency, as “the greatest achievement* we’ve ever done.” And in that part of the world, of course, they don’t play football.